Mercury, the God of Innovation - 3 minute read

If we’re being honest the ancient Romans were really a bunch of engineers. With a big focus on trade the Romans invented numerous products: concrete, the arch, the aqueduct, arterial surgical clamps, a calendar, bound books and paved roads. Borrowing from the Greeks the Romans had a god for everything. So given this penchant for products who was the Roman god of innovation?  The god Mercury.

Of course the Romans did not refer to innovation. But taking a look at Mercury’s responsibilities as a god reveals a few secrets of the innovation process. 

Mercury was the god of travelers, boundaries, and crossroads. This is an essential element of the innovative process. From Bell Labs’ famous long hallways and literal open door policy, to the open office layouts of Silicon Valley innovation happens when people and information move across boundaries or meet at the crossroads. 

It was a meteorologist who first discovered the geological phenomenon of continental drift.  A company created a new hair gel taking a cue from the Sumo Wrestler’s hair wax. Taking a cue from how academic papers cite each other a couple of grad students came up with an algorithm to search the internet and called it Google.  Innovation lives at the crossroads of disciplines and expertise. See this post, and this one for more on that. 

Mercury was the god of communication and divination. Every innovator I’ve ever interviewed talks of the importance of speaking to lots of people about their ideas. The feedback helps them make adjustments. 

But divination is often an overlooked element. Divination means communicating with the divine to see into the future.  Many innovators get their ideas in dreams. Ramanujan, the creator of number theory, said he woke up in the morning with equations the goddess had written on his tongue. Innovators are not afraid to trust their visions of the future even when others think they’re nuts. 

Mercury was the god of thieves. Here we enter Steve Jobs territory. Yes, great artists steal, as do great innovators. I am not endorsing actual theft. Rather keeping one’s eyes and ears open to everything going on. No idea is too small or silly to be of help. What’s the point of being at the crossroads if you’re not listening for what is going to help you move to the next phase. 

Lastly, Mercury was the god of luck. This is a sensitive topic for successful innovators for many of them like to take credit for everything that happened. But luck plays a big role in successful innovation, from timing to funding to markets to new hires every innovator is at the whim of luck. To recognize that takes a lot of pressure off of people. There is just so much that is in my control.

nnovation is a combination of the crossroads, divination, theft and luck. All innovators should keep an image of Mercury around to remind them of this. 


Judah Pollack